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Enhancing Resilience in Elite Athletes- Exploring the Environmental Factors:

The adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" captures the essence of resilience in the face of adversity. However, individuals respond differently to challenges, with some easily pushing through while others struggle. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and utilize personal qualities to withstand pressure. In today's fast-paced and stressful world, developing resilience is crucial for elite athletes as it can protect against mental illness and enhance performance. This article explores how athletes and coaches can cultivate these skills to navigate the high-pressure environment of competitive sports.


The Significance of Athletic Resilience:

In the world of sports, a prevailing "win at all costs" mindset often overshadows the understanding that success is not solely determined by physical toughness and mental resolve but also involves sacrifice and vulnerability. Athletes recognize that winning is largely a mental game. Therefore, just like physical training, coaches and athletes need to prioritize monitoring, training, and developing athletes' psychological skills.


Adversity in the Athletic Domain:

Adversity in sports is commonly associated with competitive performance, the organizational structure of sports, and non-sporting events in athletes' personal lives. The relentless training, performance expectations, and selection processes pose significant mental resilience challenges for athletes and coaches, along with the everyday stressors encountered in life. Recognizing the duty of care towards athletes, it is now acknowledged that mental resilience is not an innate trait but should be consciously developed, akin to physical resilience.


Considering the significant role of the environment in building resilience, this blog aims to promote practices that facilitate the development of psychological resilience. These practices can lead to desirable outcomes such as:


  1. Optimal motivation and increased levels of self discipline

  2. Building tolerance toward difficult internal emotions, thoughts and feelings

  3. Regulation of hypothetical thoughts, mental images, and emotions

  4. Regulation of heart rate and emotional fitness (how many emotions can the athlete tolerate without affecting performance

  5. Maintaining attention on key stimuli and helpful actions

  6. Attaining, maintaining, and regaining confidence in oneself and others (before, during and after gameplay

  7. Accepting and managing pressure

  8. Coping with distress (physical) and optimising stress (mental)

Resilience and the Environment

Psychological resilience is a mental and emotional construct displayed through individual actions, but it is profoundly influenced by environmental factors such as social, cultural, or occupational sources. Instead of viewing resilience as an inherent trait, it should be seen as a capability that can be developed through interactions between individuals and their environment. Athletes do not exist and compete in isolation; therefore, special attention should be given to the environment in which they grow and develop.


“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower” – Alexander den Heijer


Analogous to a flower that needs a suitable environment to bloom, athletes require support, challenge, and guidance to reach their full potential. Recognizing the significance of the environment in resilience development is a recent development. Dr. Sarkar's BASES expert statement sheds light on this aspect. This blog aims to expand on this information and translate resilience research into practical tools for athletes and coaches.


Challenge and Support:

Drawing from the work of Dr. Fletcher and Dr. Sarkar on mental fortitude training, the concepts of challenge and support are fundamental to developing resilience and achieving high performance. What do these concepts mean for athletes and coaches?


Challenge:

  • Setting high standards for individuals

  • Setting challenging tasks

  • Increasing accountability and responsibility

  • Encouraging individuals to step outside their comfort zones

Support:

  • Enabling personal development

  • Building trust

  • Providing guidance and feedback

Figure 1: Challenge and Support Matrix for Developing Resilience

Figure 1 illustrates four environments created by leaders:



  1. Unrelenting environments (High challenge, Low support)

  2. Facilitative environments (High challenge, High support)

  3. Stagnant environments (Low challenge, Low support)

  4. Comfortable environments (Low challenge, High support)

Each environment has distinct features, but for resilience development, optimal performance, and well-being, a facilitative environment is crucial.


What Does a Facilitative Environment Look Like?

World-class hockey coach Ric Charlesworth encapsulated the ideal coaching environment for optimal performance and athlete welfare, stating:


"The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable and comfort the troubled."


This statement aligns perfectly with the characteristics of a facilitative environment. It suggests that to facilitate excellence and welfare in elite sports, the environment must balance high levels of support and challenge. Coaches must be highly aware of their athletes' well-being, as an unrelenting environment can be detrimental. However, there remains a question for many coaches: Should welfare come before winning?

Recognising this dilemma, Loughborough University researchers have identified the following characteristics of a facilitative environment:

  1. Supportive challenge towards a goal (SMART)

  2. Involvement and ownership of goals by individuals

  3. Healthy competition (training environments must be competitive)

  4. A psychologically safe environment that encourages risk-taking

  5. Embracing learning from mistakes and failure

  6. Cultivating good relationships between performers, leaders, and coaches

Dealing with the Pressures of the Environment:

Pressure is an inevitable part of sports. Consider the Olympics, where athletes prepare for four years for a few seconds or minutes of performance. How athletes cope with pressure and overcome adversity distinguishes those who succeed from those who do not.


Top English cricketer Andrew Strauss shared insights on dealing with pressure, mentioning how players like Justin Langer from Australia dealt with it by leaving nothing to chance in their preparations. Such thorough preparation equips athletes to handle any situation on the field. Or take Michaels Phelps training for 5 years straight without taking day off.

This type of preparation aligns with the techniques proposed by Dr. Fletcher and colleagues regarding pressure inurement training. By gradually increasing stress and pressure in training, athletes develop the skills to maintain performance under pressure.


Enhancing the demand of stressors (in terms of type, property, or dimension) and amplifying the significance of appraisals (such as relevance, importance, and consequences) are key strategies to foster an environment that drives peak performance. Simultaneously, it is essential to adapt and manipulate the environment to increase the support available (both physical and emotional). When pressure exceeds an individual's available resources, the likelihood of a negative outcome increases. Therefore, it is crucial to provide motivational feedback and support to counterbalance the pressure and maintain resilience.


Implications for Athletes and Coaches:

  1. Adopt a multi-level approach: Developing resilience in elite sports requires a collaborative effort involving coaches, support staff, parents, leaders, managers, and teammates. Creating the desired culture relies on motivational and developmental feedback.

  2. Train under pressure: Exposing athletes to highly pressurized situations in training prepares them for anything they may encounter in competition. By manipulating the training environment, athletes become adept at positively appraising stressful stimuli.

  3. Train decision making under physical and mental fatigue. This mimics real life situations that the athlete will encounter in gameplay.

  4. Lean on each other: Support from teammates, coaches, and significant others is invaluable in the high-pressure world of sports. Establishing an environment where seeking and providing support is encouraged helps develop resilience. Coaches and athletes should work to eliminate any stigma associated with asking for help.

  5. Challenge yourself and embrace failure: Just as physical training involves increasing the stress on the body to adapt and improve, athletes should not be afraid to fail. Learning from failures and developing the ability to bounce back are crucial aspects of building resilience.

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